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August 2, 2016 No comments

If You Build It, They Will Come.

Correspondence Events Sports Cycling
By Bregan
If You Build It, They Will Come.

A man on a mission - Paul Errington. photo: Greg Villalobos

Back in 2012 we were contacted by a young man looking to contribute to the Brooks Blog about a "gravel" event he would be attending in USA, the Dirty Kanza 200. As the name would suggest, the event was being held in Kansas of all places, which seemed an odd place to base an international cycling event. At the time we were unfamiliar with the gravel format, as many in Europe still are, until Paul delivered an excellent blog post that introduced us to the world of "grinding", and the popularity of the Cambium among the riders of such events since has drawn Brooks increasingly into the fold.

Paul hails from Newcastle, which is near Kielder Forest, a large wilderness bordering Scotland known for its dark night skies and ample forestry. For many years, Paul has been a fixture at international cycling adventure challenges, and so he decided it was time for the UK to experience the special feeling of a real gravel event. Having spent much time in his life exploring Northumbrian roads and singletrack, he came upon the name Dirty Reiver as part homage to the clannish border raiders who once rode the very same roads, and the Kansan challenge that inspires him today.

00km with 3500m climbing. The jagged course profile tells it all.

Paul worked nights and weekends for months to organise the event with the help of a small team of friends and supporters who came on after the initial announcement. The Forestry commission lent assistance, and help from the neighbouring community of Hexham assured that the inaugural event would would not lack for checkpoints, accommodation, course marshals or anything else, riders included. Mere days after he launched, over 400 start places had already been filled and registration was closed.

The Nina from Stelbel is perfect for an endurance event.

Rumours abound that gravel is just a marketing concept. However such opinions are the exclusive to´ those who has never been to a gravel event themselves. A gravel grinder is a long distance cycling challenge that combines elements of mtb and road cycling, but which can be completed on any number of different bikes, gravel bikes gradually becoming the dominant mode, but still many CX bikes, MTB (26 + 29), Fat Bikes, and singlespeed bikes will be on hand at any event you attend. A gravel bike is an all-road bike with an endurance position and room for wider tyres, up to 48c or more. These bikes may also have extra braze-ons for bottles, bags, or racks, a compact geometry, or flared drop handlebars.

A big crowd for the start at Kielder Castle. photo: Greg Villalobos

Game faces abound at Kielder Castle as riders face the unknown. photo: Author

Gravel events are attracting many road cyclists, which is easy to see from the kit worn by the riders. Its easy to imagine why roadies find an event like the Dirty Reiver appealing: its technical riding, but not too technical, its long and hard for plenty of suffering, there are no cars with which to contend, and aside from using mtb pedals, one can ride a drop bar and thus adopt a familiar position, both physiologically and aesthetically.

Springtime in Northumberland

On the morning of the ride, riders woke at 4:30am to snow falling and a temperature hovering around zero degrees. However, by the time they reached the Castle, the clouds were starting to clear out and the sun made its appearance. Little did they know that would not be the last they would see of the white stuff that day.

The vibe at a gravel event is different than at other sportives. Distances are long, the field is well strung out, and often riding single file is the norm. This allows for lots of opportunities to chat with other riders, and as many Scots were in attendance, there was no shortage of willing conversationists. Also a proper gravel event is tough, so riders routinely check on each other, offering assistance and generally being courteous and helpful. Kielder opens up quite a bit and the vistas can be stunning. It is a hard land, a massive tree farm, where spring had not yet arrived. Alternating landscapes of harvested trees and faded heather. It is a remote place, the horizon unbroken by the furniture of civilisation.

Well-run, well-stocked checkpoints, this one from Alpkit.com

Authors note on completing the ride: The first checkpoint was at km 60 and I have to admit, being still in winter condition, I was feeling a bit tired already. By km 100, and with a squeaky chain from falling in the water crossing, I was probably not alone in wishing to curl up by the fire under the teepee and call it a day. But the thing about such an event is that completion is not guaranteed, and your only hope is to keep your mind and spirits sharp and remember to do the things you've learned that keep you up and moving respectably as you grind the hours away. (The checkpoints by the way were copiously stocked and well-staffed with some of the tastiest treats and friendliest folks I've ever had the pleasure of casting a weary glance.) As for the riding, it was a mix of rocky doubletrack, smoothish gravel, roughish gravel, farm roads, and the odd bit of rutted, puddled, sloggy bits too close to tough mudder for my liking. (Word has it some of this was the result of weather conditions and will be reconsidered next year.) All in all, the course was rideable, very tough, and technical enough to keep the mtb'rs happy while not ruining the day for the mortals.

The course was extremely well marked. A GPS device or map was not necessary.

The weather was tough, constantly changing. Put the jacket on, takes the jacket off. Get wet, get dry. Get wet again. Wait, now its kind of hot and sweaty. Uh oh, here come black clouds. The weather conditions combined with the riding put your material to the test and forced many a rider to consider planning differently the next time out. In the end, a little over half of the starters made their way into the finish, exhausted and relieved. Some of the big guns came out to play as well. Mike Hall, founder of the Transcontinental was on hand, taking a break from organising the Valleycat to join this seminal event. Josh Ibbett, who last years Transcontinental was also on hand for the podium Elite XC racer and current UK Fat bike champion, George Budd cleaned the course in the downright scary time of just under 8 hours.